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Frank Film: What Makes Lyttelton an Artists’ Town?

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(Copy by Frank Film)

An arty energy is a hard thing to describe. Everyone knows it when they feel it, though, and there are certain places on the planet which carry a whole lot of this mysterious creative magnetism.

The port town, wrapped around the insides of a volcanic crater and separated from Christchurch
by a tunnel, is as local poet Ciaran Fox says, infested with artistic types. “Throw a stone in the
air in Lyttelton and it’s going to come down on a creative person,” And he’s right – one only has
to look at the list of accomplished and emerging artists to come out of the place.

Lyttelton is (and has been) home to musicians like Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, Adam
McGrath, Aldous Harding, Ben Woods, Phoebe Woods, Carmel Courtney and Al Park – to name
a few. It has housed writers like Ben Brown, Joe Bennett and Gary McCormick, and visual
artists of the likes of Bill Hammond, Laurence Aberhart and Jason Grieg. This is in no way an
exhaustive list – the town is home to painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, ceramicists, carvers
and creatives of all imaginable disciplines. In this story, Frank Film explores what it is that draws
them in and keeps them close.

First off, as potter Grace Uivel points out, Lyttelton is an interesting geological place. “We’re
inside the crater of a volcano,” she tells Frank Film from her shared studio, Ata Ceramics, on the
main street. The steep flanks of this volcano, stacked with houses, all lead down to the singular
main street and below it, the clanging, working port. There are cafes and gig venues
everywhere you look. And then, of course, there’s that feel in the air. Ceramicist and long-time
local Cheryl Lucas, who has a major exhibition coming up at the Christchurch Art Gallery, says
you do slightly feel like you’re on holiday when you come through the tunnel. “It always feels
good here,” she says.

So what is it? Writer Ben Brown reckons it’s the port which gives the town its character. “It’s an
egalitarian place and I think that’s a union ethos,” says Ben, who called Lyttelton home for 20
years. “It’s a border, it’s an international gateway, so you’re forced to rub shoulders with
diversity.” Saxophonist Carmel Courtney says that while visual artists have always talked about
the hue of Lyttelton, for her as a musician, it’s the ‘feel’. “You don’t ever want to not feel as an
artist,” Carmel says.

It was this feel (and the cheap house prices) which brought musician Al Park here in ‘78. “I
remember walking down Voelas Road with Bill Hammond…and Bill said to me, ‘I’ve found my
place.’ And I went, ‘I’ve found my place, as well’,” Al says, and remembers buying his house for
$3k. Those were the days. According to Al, Lyttelton was at that time considered by anyone who
lived on the other side of the tunnel to be dark and poor and rough.

Artist Asher Newbury grew up in Lyttelton, and remembers it being pretty rough when he was a
kid, but full of artists. His entire brood of siblings are also artists, actors, poets and playwrights,
and he puts this down to their environment. “Growing up in the 90’s, there were working artists
all around us, and on top of that, it’s like we live in a painting,” says Asher.

There seems to be one unanimous answer from most local artists: it’s the community which
gives Lyttelton its magic. As potter Grace Uilart puts it, she came to Lyttelton and felt
immediately at home. Asher points out that with much of the town being in the shade for the
winter, people are forced to congregate. “Everyone has to come to the main street to get their
vitamin D. That creates community,” he says.

This sense of community, according to Al, only grew stronger after the 2011 earthquakes. Along
with many of the other musicians in Lyttelton, he helped to form The Harbour Union, a musical
collective initially set up to fundraise for the aftermath of the earthquakes.

Whilst there is, as musician Ben Woods describes, a romanticism today associated with the
Lyttelton name, the genuine sense of community is obvious – even to townies. Unfortunately,
just like Hydra, San Francisco and Berlin, Lyttelton is starting to feel the effects of gentrification.
Both house prices and rent are going up, forcing Asher and his young family to move up to
Palmerston North.

But, as Asher says, they’ll be back. It seems once you fall in love with Lyttelton, it’s hard to stay
away. This film is an ode to a beloved town of artists – watch it in full here. www.frankfilm.co.nz

A special thanks to Lindon Puffin, Martin Sagadin, Dylan Hawes, Al Park, Amiria Grenell,
Marlon Williams, Jacob Bryant, Rosie Smyth.


Bill Hammond, The Fall of Icarus (after Bruegel), 1995, Acrylic on canvas,
Reproduced courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
Lyttelton Street Images:
Andrea McHarg, Source: 2013 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt and Dave Reynolds,
Source: 2013 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt

Dispeller (short film): Music by Ben Woods, directed by Martin Sagadin.


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